The Fleeting Beauty of Japanese Cherry Blossoms

Spring is my favorite time in Japan, mainly because for two fleeting  weeks, cherry blossoms emerge, luring the young and old outside to appreciate Japanese nature at its finest.  Although cherry blossom season is over in Matsuyama, traces of fallen blossoms remain on the ground, reminding me to appreciate things or people who won’t always be around.  Below are some of my favorite photos from this year’s hanami season in Ehime.


A couple relax under a cherry blossom tree along Ishite River, Matsuyama.


The elderly enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms.


Matsuyama’s famous ferris wheel as seen from atop Matsuyama Castle Park.


石手川公園松山 (Ishitegakoen train station, Matsuyama).


Dogo Park.


The view of the cherry blossoms along Ishite River Park as the sun sets.


Matsuyama Castle.


A man rests on a bench after biking along Ishite River Park, Matsuyama.


Nanrakuen Garden in Uwajima, Ehime.

My Second Year in Japan – A Photo Essay

Per my blogging tradition, below is a collection of 12 photos representing my 2012.  In general, it was a good year, but also a challenging and emotional one, where I said many goodbyes, changed jobs and moved to a different part of Japan.  I wish everyone a very prosperous and healthy 2013. あけましておめでとうございます!



Toyama is a part of Japan’s 雪国(snow country) and the winter brings days and nights of endless snow.  This is a picture of a frozen window at Hayatsuki Junior High School, where I worked as an ALT for two years until July.  I love the imprints from my students’ fingerprints.



One of my favorite places in the Toyama region is Gokayama, a small village tucked away in the mountains full of “gassho” style homes.  These traditional houses are all built with a steep thatched roof said to resemble clasping praying hands (and protecting the homes from the heavy snowfall).  On certain nights in the winter, the village is lit up with candles, creating a mystical winter wonderland for everyone to walk around and appreciate the beauty winter brings.



Now I know what it feels like to get married! (Sort of).  雛祭り, or hinamatsuri/Doll’s Festival, is celebrated every year in Japan on March 3.  On this day, people pray for young girls’ growth and happiness. Several dolls dressed in traditional Heian period clothing, representing the emperor, empress and their court, are often put on display. I was asked to dress up like a doll with my friend Jon, a fellow ALT in Toyama-ken.  We walked around the festival greeting people and taking pictures as if we were the emperor and empress! 楽しかったですよ!



No year in Japan is complete without seeing sakura, or cherry blossom trees.  In late April, my friend Jenson and I biked to a park bordering Uozu and Namerikawa for the first time just as dusk was approaching.  The blossoming sakuras and lit lanterns created a magical, very peaceful, atmosphere – a welcome gift after a long winter.



My sister and two friends came to Japan during Golden Week, so I spent my spring vacation showing them around several “must-see” areas of Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and of course, my former stomping ground Toyama.  My sister and I both snapped a picture of this young boy running gleefully through Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine, one of my favorite places in Kyoto. かわいいですね。



I finally saw a geisha (or a woman dressed as a geisha).  I love the stare this woman is giving to the person next to her.  I saw her at the Kanazawa Hyakumangoku festival.



I spent my July saying goodbye to Namerikawa, the seaside town I lived in for two years.  I took this picture while biking home from one of my elementary schools, likely teary-eyed at the thought of leaving the view of the Tateyama Mountain Range and open freedom of seeing rice fields upon rice fields.



I spent most of my August in Hiroshima, studying at Hiroshima City University as part of the Hiroshima & Peace Program.  On August 6, the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing, thousands of people gathered along the riverfront and set afloat paper lanterns in memory of ancestors, friends, and other loved ones lost – not only on that fateful day, but in wars and tragedies across many nations.  I lit one in honor of all those who lost their lives in war, as well as my paternal grandmother, whose life story inspired me to apply for the program.



I moved to Matsuyama on Japan’s Shikoku Island in late August for a new job.  Matsuyama is the largest city in the otherwise rural Ehime Prefecture, and like Toyama, a kind of hidden gem in Japan.  This is a view of the city from the top of a hill in Dogo Park.



Mt. Ishizuchi, in Ehime, is the tallest mountain in western Japan.  I climbed it with a group of my adult students on a lovely October day.  The rugged landscape from the top was awe-inspiring, and made me want to climb many more mountains before I leave Japan.



Shimonada Station in Iyo City, Ehime, is the said to be the closest train station to the ocean in Japan.  One of my adult students, who told me this is his favorite place in Japan, took me here on a fall day to photograph the sunset.



The holidays are sometimes the times when I feel homesick the most.  I haven’t been home for a family Christmas in three years, and I miss my mother’s home-cooking and all the other comfort that comes with being around family.  Thankfully, this year, I spent a day with my summer host family in Hiroshima.  We walked around Hiroshima Dreamination, a spectacular collection of illuminations that recreates a fairytale world for children and adults.

One Year in Japan – A Photo Essay

It goes without saying that 2011 was a difficult year for everyone in Japan.  As the country continues to mend in 2012, I hope the rest of the world does not forget the beauty that is everywhere here.

In 12 months, through four distinct seasons and an emotionally impactful year, it is Japan that taught me how to be strong, persevering and unafraid.  For that, I am forever grateful.



Gyouden Park in Namerikawa on a snowy January morning


Hakuba Ski Resort in Nagano, Japan


Volunteers in Namerikawa, Japan pack boxes filled with relief items for victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami


Cherry blossoms in Kojo Park, Takaoka, Japan


Bonsai rooftop garden at Bonsai Guesthouse in Osaka, Japan


Sea of Japan sunset from Namerikawa


Creek in Kamiichi, Japan


Nebuta festival in Namerikawa, Japan


Owara Kaze no Bon Festival in Yatsuo, Japan


A traditional Japanese garden in Toyama, Japan


Design Festa in Tokyo


Two brothers enjoying candy canes at Namerikawa International Day

All of these photos were taken with my iPhone, Nikon Coolpix S6000 or Lumix G2.

Unexpected Cherry Blossoms

Life is full of the unexpected.  Some surprises change your life for the better, while others are extremely painful.

All of us in the JET Programme have different reasons for wanting to live in Japan.  Still, I am always surprised when I talk to someone who has dreamed of coming here since childhood.  I often hear, “I’ve just always been fascinated with the culture.”  Of course, I admire people who are interested in a culture with which they share no blood connection.  That notion, however, is not something I understood until I entered my 20s.

I didn’t have a particular fascination with Japan, or any other Asian culture, as a child.  My family celebrated its strong Irish roots, even though my siblings and I also share German and Czech blood.  We went to Chicago’s famed Irish parades on St. Patrick’s Day, my Mom cooked Irish food and I studied the literature of the country.  As a result, I always dreamed that Ireland would be the first country outside of the U.S. that I would visit.  I assumed this would be on my honeymoon because that was the first time my parents traveled outside of the country.

But as I grew independent and traveled on my own, my worldview slowly changed.  With the help of some scholarship money and my parents, I traveled to France on my first international voyage.  Six months later, I left for an extended stay in Ireland, a country I still admire and feel a connection to.

But Japan is my home for the time being, and it is a country I love for many reasons.  I will always feel a deep admiration for Japanese culture, even if I can never call myself Japanese.

When I visited Chicago in August, my Mom asked that I spend one afternoon organizing some books stored in our attic.  I was taken aback when I saw the Japanese book (written in English) The Old Man Who Made the Trees Bloom, or as it is known in Japan, Hanasaka Jijii.  The book was a gift to me and my twin sister Brigid from our parents.  They bought it for us to commemorate our first visit to the Art Institue of Chicago.  In this folktale, an old, poor couple in rural Japan grieve after their greedy neighbor kills their beloved dog Shiro.  The kind and patient couple are rewarded, however, when the dog’s spirit brings them wealth in the form of gold and cherry blossoms.  When I opened the book, I read this inscription from my parents:

July 6, 1991

To Sheila and Brigid,

I hope you enjoy this book.  This was your first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 6, 1991).  Mom and Dad took both of you on the train.  We ate in the Garden Restaurant. 


Mom and Dad

Never in a million years did my seven-year-old self dream that one day, I would be living in the same country where this book is set.

Reading the book again 20 years later was a very happy surprise.  Thank you, Mom and Dad.